{Scotland} Inspired by Language and Learning

January 23, 2013



It’s Burns Night on Friday, the day when the life and works of Scotland’s great poet Robert Burns get celebrated. Weather and airports permitting, one of our best friends will be arriving just in time, with a haggis or two tucked away in his suitcase. What better excuse then to write about the fabulous Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Ayrshire, Scotland.


As well as the modern building housing the collection of Burns’ life and works, the museum site comprises the historic cottage where Burns was born, the Burns Monument erected in his honour, the Poet’s Path with its giant mouse statue and weather vanes retelling the story of Burns’ famous poem Tam o’Shanter, and the Auld Kirk and Brig o’Doon, historic landmarks that both feature in the poem.



The main exhibition in the museum’s modern building takes up one gallery, and is filled with audio, visual and interactive elements to engage visitors with all aspects of Scotland’s famous poet. The central area focuses on the life of Robert Burns, i.e. the man behind the myth. As well as his books, manuscripts and letters, the exhibits include personal items such as Burn’s writing desk or watch, family photos, and an overview of his family tree and social circle which included over 200 friends and contacts. Visitors are invited to draw their own social circle to take home, or to create their shadow portrait as a souvenir which they can then email to themselves.


Another section focuses on ‘What Inspired Robert Burns?’, with a viewfinder and audio recordings of the Scottish countryside, animals and other natural sound recordings adding to the ambience. ‘Chapter and Verse’ displays musical instruments alongside a touchscreen jukebox where visitors can choose between tear jerkers, power ballads and floor fillers, whilst the section of ‘Power Ballads’ itself introduces Burns’ revolutionary ideas, his strong belief in equality and independence , and his hatred of injustice. Another touch screen interactive allows visitors to choose panel members to debate with Burns on ‘Burning Issues’ such as taxation, devolution, revolution or emigration (which you can also play online). And Burns was also greatly influenced by his belief in God and his time as a freemason, the focus of ‘Faith and Fraternity’ where visitors can also learn some new words in a Scots version of ‘The Minister’s Cat’.

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Finally, part of Burns’ life is his ongoing ‘Fame’, from local hero and household name, to being celebrated across the world. Next to a collection of translated books and Burns memorabilia, there’s a table laid out for a Burns Supper and visitors can take part in a virtual animated version, from the piping in of the haggis, to the singing of Auld Lang Syne. For a bit of fun, visitors could try their hand at a touch screen photo fit of Burns and design a tartan shortbread tin to go with it (which you can also play online).

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Around the edges of the gallery, a series of displays are devoted to some of Burns’ best known works, including Tam o’Shanter, Ae Fond Kiss, To a Mouse, Jolly Beggars, The Cotter’s Saturday Night, Once I Loved a Bonnie Lass, and Sots Wha Hae. Each display comes with related objects, where relevant, alongside a listening post, an periodically the lights in the whole gallery would dim for a screen and voiceover recital of Tam o ‘Shanter. Selected works also include further interactives. For example, Tam O’Shanter comes with a game to make your own ghost story (which you can also play online), and To a Mouse has a lift the flap game for younger visitors, to find the “A moose loose withoot a hoose” in Burns Cottage. Other interactives include a rhythm action game where visitors need to keep up with the beat of Burns poems, and a puppet theatre for visitors to make up their own stories. What I really liked about the interactives, was that they weren’t all aimed at a specific age group or a ‘one size fits all’, so that visitors of different ages could enjoy different areas and interactives in the gallery. I also liked that each exhibit was self contained, so that there was no one single way to navigate around the exhibition leaving each visitor to explore in their own way.

One of the most interesting features of the exhibition, is that the display case labels are in Scots. Burns not only wrote his best loved songs and poems in Scots, he also championed Scots as a language, and visitors are invited to encounter it alongside English throughout the exhibition. As is explained at the beginning, “Some of the words may be familiar and some may seem strange but we hope that, when you leave, you will take some of them with you as lifelong companions.” This is reinforced by an installation of Modern Scots words in the entrance of the museum building.


I’ve heard people comment that the admission price is a bit steep at £8, but there is so much to explore and experience in the exhibition, with its multitude of low and high tech interactives, and if you visit both the exhibition and cottage as well as the rest of the site I think you do get value for money. There are concession available for families and groups,  and your ticket is valid for three days so if you live locally or are staying on holiday in the area, you spread your visit our over several days or come back and re-visit your favourite exhibits. If you’re making a day of it, I’d also recommend the museum cafe. Obviously you’ll need to pay extra for the food, but I had one of the best haggis, neeps and tatties lunches ever there!


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2 Responses to “{Scotland} Inspired by Language and Learning”

  1. Tom Bowie Says:

    Hope my daughter gets to visit here in December this year.



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